Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Protected Borders, Ungleaned Corners

When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather every remaining bit of your harvest. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God. - Leviticus 23:22

1. A country has the right to protect its borders. For the purposes of this conversation, this country will refer to the United States of America, a landmass inhabited by native peoples and then colonized by explorers, freedom seekers, economic migrants, and convicts. 

2. Economic migration is provided for through legal systems and applications. Seeking asylum due to persecution or danger is one way around the legal application process, but there remains the need for a paper trail to prove said risk. Police officials and government assistance offices may be in the pocket of or also threatened by the same endangering entities and therefore paperwork may be difficult or impossible to maintain. A system of merciful discernment is needed and must be applied as equally as possible in such cases. 

3. When migrating, there are laws and guidelines requiring refugees to seek asylum in the first "safe third country" that is reached. A safe third country is determined by the ability of the asylum seeker to be able to declare for asylum without fear of being returned to their country of origin and to be able to live reasonably, working with and toward greater self-determination, in that country. Mexico's asylum system remains under development and is not presently able to guarantee genuine asylum to the majority who seek it there. 

4. People who send their children through to the United States are hoping that their children will be able to connect with family members currently residing in here. Similar to the Kindertransport, chidren are being kissed goodbye and sent off with hope for a better life. Often parents know that they may not see their children again. 

"Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death." - Deuteronomy 24:16

Depriving children of genuinely safe and sanitary condition is punishing them for their parents' (perceived or real) crimes. This is specifically against the biblical injunction regarding generational punishments. When it comes to children, one hopes that one's nation will demonstrate its highest ideals and show that we (the nation) have learned from historical mistakes. 

The Kindertransport worked in part because private British citizens put up money for the children and their transportation. If I knew that money I gave would go directly to provisions for a specific child, I'd have auto-debit set up in a heartbeat. As it is, I give through my denominational resource for caring for migrant and refugee children: Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services and AMMPARO.

5. It is possible to have a nuanced conversation about the crisis at the American southern border, the internment camp situation for housing children, and enforcing laws while showing mercy all at the same time. This is not the same as saying, "There is wrong doing on both sides." We can definitively acknowledge a present wrong and historical wrongs, while also working to figure out sustainable and life-giving solutions. It is when we take the time and energy to fight about who is more right that the truth is ignored and the actual call to make things better goes unheard. There may not be a quick fix, but there are long-term ways to solve these problems, to work for justice and peace, and to care for our neighbors. 

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues, but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthles. Religion that is pure and undefiled is before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. - James 1:26-27

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Imagine Something Better

Imagination matters. And we are failing our children when it comes to the fullest use of imagination.

Experiences of play wherein different locales, ways of being, changing movement, and evolving responses are critical to our children's emotional and psychological development. Opportunities for imagination come naturally to most children and if we, as adults, ask questions, encourage, and give healthy shape to such play, we are then shoring up a strong mental and ethical foundation for our children.

Because moral imagination is a real concept and, I would argue, a real thing. Moral imagination, even in play, involves the capactity to wrestle with ethical concepts and frameworks and apply them in new and different settings. In order to be grow into an adult ethic that seeks justice and wholeness, children have to be taught the truth of certain historic events. Girded with historical realities, in all their complexities, children can imagine their reactions, test those responses with adults or in their minds, and then sort out how to choose between options. This skill becomes the moral imagination adults require to be responsive and compassionate citizens of communities.

In recent weeks, I learned of two particular failures to tell the truth that will, if unchecked, compromise the development of moral imagination in the children who interact with these situations.

This screenshot is from Twitter and was a school assignment for upper elementary/middle school students in North Carolina. There was a long conversation between some parents regarding the assignment, mostly centering on parents who believed there was no problem with the assignment and parents who found it appalling.

Initially the assignments seem benign, offering children a variety of opportunities and ways to respond to lessons about the Holocaust. Presumably there is a list of recommended books or resources that accompanies the assignment to help. Additionally, this assignment is asking for some level of imagination. So, what's the problem?

The problem is that such an assignment cannot be fully rooted in having been told the truth about the Holocaust. This is not an assignment that would come after reading The Diary of Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel's Night. A letter from a concentration camp? It's not summer camp. There are no letters. There is survival, and barely that.

Assignments that actually wrestle with honest accounts of the Holocaust would ask children for their own reactions to what they read and heard. They would write letters about their own response to pictures, accounts, film clips, or novels. Students would be presented with the truth and then accompanied in how to emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically process the horror.

Assignments like "write a letter to your parents" or "write a skit" are the imaginative equivalent of skipping rocks across a pond. It takes some skill, but it tells you nothing about the depth of the pond. Additionally, a child who completes this type of assignment to success in the grading parameters for this class will believe themselves to have understood the depth of the assignment. When later confronted with additional information about concentration camps or the Holocaust- such as children were only kept alive for medical experimentation or days were spent in back-breaking labor or in fear for your life or the potential that you survived via the Kindertransport, but you never saw your parents again- when confronted with these realities, a young adult will retreat mentally to the reward of what was previously imagined (that sixth grade skit they wrote) and treat that as the truth.

It is very hard to write over mental scripts, which is why we have to be honest from the beginning.

Which brings me to the second failure: the Roar Vacation Bible School (VBS) from Group Publishing. You can read an excellent reflection on this VBS and its problematic issues here. Long story less long, this is an "Africa"-themed curriculum in which children pretend to be Israelite slaves, Africa is refered to as a "country", and students are asked to add "clicks" to their words to mimic an particular language and dialect.

What's the problem here? (Besides having an all-white creative team at Group Publishing.)

First, Africa is a very large continent with 54 separate countries, most containing a variety of people with differing ethnic identities. Nigeria and South Sudan are two different places with a variety of ways of being. We don't say that Belgium and Italy are the same, so why is conflating African nations acceptable.

Second, slavery is both a historical and contemporary issue. Even if you want to make the (not good) argument that it was/is an economic system (as opposed to a system of oppression), it remains true that enslaving people, particularly implying that people can be owned, is neither just nor good nor a viable economic system. Enslaving people is wrong. Furthermore, enslavement based on race or ethnicity creates generational trauma. We have no idea how long it takes that generational trauma to heal because we haven't stopped doubling down on some of the lies about enslavement in history and in modern times.

Third, the internet is real. If you want to show what a "click" language is like, get thee to YouTube and find a video with a native Xhosa speaker. It takes about thirty seconds unless your internet is slow. Then it takes 45 seconds.

Yes, the enslavement of the Israelites is a biblical reality and Pharoah's treatment of them was particularly harsh. Children can, however, be told the truth and asked to consider what people may have felt or thought without actually being told to reinact enslavement. Similar to some of the Holocaust assignments, pretending to be a slave while being faux-yelled at in a (safe) VBS setting makes a mental imprint on kids that they understand what this experience is like. They don't. Without being told the truth and then guided into processing the horror, they are imprinting a lesson that may never be written over. "I understand what X is like because I had this experience/lesson when I was a kid."

I know what it is like to water a huge garden from a five gallon bucket, refilled repeatedly, in the North Carolina heat. I know what it's like to be yelled at while doing it. I do not know what slavery is like. I can only imagine slavery because I have read accounts and historical information. I have enough understanding to comprehend a horror that I have not experienced and to be able to extrapolate, morally, that I should keep alert to prevent, to the best of my ability, such circumstances in the future. Prevention is not because I'm a savior of people, but because I am moral participant in the universe and enslaving people is not in the arc of justice.

It would be easy to say that this is just one assignment or one VBS experience, but a failure to be honest hobbles the moral imagination for years to come. If I think my imagination suffices for the truth of an experience, rather than someone else's own account of it, then I will never actually extend my ethics beyond myself.

I've been pregnant twice, so I can "imagine" what women who seeks abortion services are feeling/thinking.

I've been broke, so I can "imagine" what people who are without funds experience.

I've been sick, even to the point of being unable to work, so I can "imagine" the implications of various long-term illnesses.

I've been spanked, so I can "imagine" the consequences of long-term physical and mental abuse.

My country has been attacked, so I can "imagine" the impact of growing up and living in a war zone.

I can imagine all day long, but there are truthful accounts of real people who do tell their own stories. Reading or watching their own words, their owning of their experience, strengthens my moral imagination so that I live in an ethical framework that includes other people's truth, not just my imagining of it. And I am trying to raise my children to do this same thing.

Each assignment, each VBS or Sunday School lesson, each car conversation, or library visit matters because they are all blocks in the foundation of who our children are and who they will be. If we want them to be fully functioning, morally imaginative adults- then we have to equip them with the truth, good and bad and ambivalent, of human history. When we tell the truth, and the whole truth, there is no place for lies or fake news to take root.

And then, I imagine, the world becomes a better place.

Monday, June 3, 2019

What Does Conversion Look Like?

In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”He answered, “Yes, Lord.”The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem.  He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.  I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. After eating, he regained his strength.He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. - Acts 9:10-19 (Common English Bible) 

If your experience of Christianity is anything like mine, then you have likely been taught to think about Saul/Paul as the follower of Jesus with the ultimate conversion story. Even if you've been led to understand that he remained Jewish (in ethnic practices), his faith in Christ and Christ's salvific purposes gave his life a very specific direction following Saul's experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). 
I've always accepted this. Over the years, I've thought about this story to discuss the significance of other vocations, since Paul wasn't making his own clothes or planting and tending crops. While he matters for the spread of the gospel, the work of other believers' daily lives also made that evangelism possible. 
Lately, however, I have been rethinking that story. Is Saul's change of heart really the greatest change in Acts 9? Is the Road to Damascus experience really the conversions experience to which all new Christians (or all Christians period) are meant to aspire? 
As I look at the chapter afresh, I am struck by what is required of Ananias. He believes in Jesus, but now Jesus asks him to welcome a man into his home. This man was known to Ananais to be a threat to his family, his friends, and himself. This man has harmed or witnessed the killing of people whom Ananais knew, maybe loved. Prior to Jesus' request, at best Ananais would have crossed to the other side of the market if he saw Saul, if not actually hide away until Saul left town. 
Now, Jesus is expecting something of Ananais for Saul. Ananias does not want to do it. He would like to say no. He tries to explain to Jesus what's happening. Jesus doesn't change his tune. 
So Ananias must experience his own conversion, his own continued growth in faith, a further step in sanctification, a greater yielding to the Holy Spirit. He must prepare to welcome Saul into his home and he's going to have to tell other people that he's doing it. 
It's not like he's going to be able to keep Saul a secret. It seems likely that Ananias has some kind of household. How will they respond to his revelation: "Jesus told me we need to bring that guy we were all just panicking about into the house." 
If conversion represents a change of heart, a change of behavior, a change of attitude, an application of ethics in the midst of stress and strain, then Ananias is the conversion story we should have been paying attention to all along. 
Most Christians, especially life-long Christians, have very little to do with Saul of Tarsus, but we have a lot in common with Ananias. Instead of assuming or expecting a road to Damascus experience, we are called to be on the look out for a stranger in Damascus experience. And we are meant to be the ones to welcome that stranger for Christ's own sake. 
We are meant to open our homes to someone whose life experience is not like ours. 
We are meant to show hospitality to someone whose history is frightening to us. 
We are meant to welcome the one who differs from us greatly and yet whom Christ loves and for whom Christ died. 
I am not saying that we are meant to knowingly endanger ourselves or our families, but we are meant to take some risks for the sake of the gospel. We are meant to be open to people are different. We are meant to have conversion experiences in our life, again and again. These experiences are the ones in which Jesus speaks to us, moves us, compels us to do the thing that surprises us and yet is absolutely necessary for the sake of the world. 
It's what Ananias did. It's his conversion story from which we are meant to learn how to be followers of the Way of Christ. 
To adapt the verse of There is a Balm in Gilead, "If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul... Like Ananias, you can show grace to all."